Driverless cars are coming to the streets of London, with Volvo announcing plans to put autonomous vehicles in the hands of real people on the UK capital's roads.
The scheme, dubbed Drive Me London, will begin in early 2017 and comes alongside autonomous vehicle testing on the congested roads of China, as well as the streets of Gothenburg in Volvo's native Sweden, as the car manufacturer looks to research the practicalities of driverless cars in live environments.
"We're trying to understand how to bring the technology of self-driving cars to the real world and we believe that the real world is the best place where you can learn," Erik Coelingh, senior technical leader for safety and driver support technologies at Volvo, told ZDNet.
"We realise that customers and traffic are very different around the world, so we think it's important to test in different environments to be prepared for the future, and London is a very, very large city where people spend lots of time in traffic jams, so we think it's an ideal place to continue learning," he said.
As a busier, larger city than Gothenburg, London will provide a place to examine how autonomous vehicles react in a different traffic system to what the cars have experienced in Sweden.
"Because the challenge with a self-driving car is that it can deal with exceptional situations, allowing the driver to do something else behind the steering wheel. But it's very difficult to predict exceptional circumstances, which is why we're doing this testing in London," Coelingh said.
The programme will see 100 Volvo customers provided with vehicles which have the option of being put into a self-driving mode on certain roads. From these locations, Volvo will monitor the vehicles and collect data about how they behave.
"Once self-driving gets operated on them, we'll make sure we have detailed maps of those selected roads. Then using cameras and sensors, we can track the cars on these roads, and we can actually determine where they are with centimetre accuracy -- exactly where on the road the car is, what it's position is in the lane, and so on," explained Coelingh, who said that while Volvo hasn't selected the roads yet, it has some basic requirements to be met.
"We prefer to have separators between oncoming traffic. We need to have roads with multiple lanes and some other criteria. Additionally, we'd like to have roads that people intensely use for the daily commute," he said. "Already, we're looking at maps of London to select roads which could be suitable".
Volvo's London driverless vehicle experiment is set to begin in early 2017 and carry on through 2018 as the auto manufacturer collaborates with a number of partners including Thatcham Reseach Centre, which specialises in vehicle safety technology and vehicle safety.
"We're cooperating with them in order to understand how active safety systems contribute to fewer crashes and fewer injuries. They've been very helpful in quantifying the benefit of modern active systems like collision warning and automatic emergency braking. We'd like to extend that cooperation to quantifying the benefits of self-driving technology," said Coelingh, who described Thatcham as a "key partner" for the scheme.
Volvo is also hoping to work with organisations including Transport for London and the Highways Agency in order to directly share data on traffic via cloud technology -- for the benefit of all involved.
"In Gothenburg our cars will be able to directly access information from the traffic control centre from the cloud and the cars will also be able to provide information to the traffic control centre and will ideally be able to do that in London," Coelingh said.
While the Drive Me scheme will also operate elsewhere, Volvo sees the London test as hugely important to the future of its autonomous vehicle technology.
"London is the largest city in Europe, so it's an important market and represents typical traffic for a European traffic system; it's a big city with a lot of issues related to the road transportation system," said Coelingh.
"One of the reasons we work with self-driving technology is because we believe it can contribute to making the road transportation system more sustainable in terms of safety and efficienct energy consumption -- and those challenges are really large in London, so in that sense it's a perfect place to test," he continued.
"This is a unique programme. The unique aspect of it is that we're testing in ordinary traffic, so it's not in a fenced off area; it's in real traffic, with real people and real cars. I stress this is real because that's what our aim is: to bring self-driving technology and its benefits to reality," Coelingh added.
Ultimately, the data gathered from autonomous vehicle tests in London, Gothenburg, and China will all contribute to Volvo's ambition that nobody driving one of their cars will be injured or killed.
"The basic technology we develop will be the same for the three locations but we'll get different answers on how it works, how customers perceive it, and what the exceptional situations are and the technology needed in order for us to build the next generation of self-driving cars," Coelingh explained.
"One of the major reasons we work with self-driving technology is because we believe it can make traffic safer. Exactly how and when -- that's what we need to learn, but that's why we need to do these trails. The long-term vision is to get to a traffic system without any accidents," he said.